More often than not Mr. Maragos has been caught in controversies, much because of the nature of his job. Recently, he was embroiled in a running argument with Nassau County Police Chief over his audit report which took the Police department to task for having exceeded the budgetary provisions. Well, that’s the job of the Comptroller, as he said in the interview he gave to The Indian Panorama on May 3, to ensure tax payer’s money is spent wisely.
Here are excerpts from the interview
TIP: You took over in 2010?
M. That’s right
TIP: And you are the 13th comptroller of Nassau County?
M: I don’t know if 13 is considered a lucky number or not. But it is number 13.
TIP: So, you have a wonderful background of Finance; you come from that background?
TIP: And this particular position requires to be dealing with Finance only?
M: No it’s a multi-discipline position like any other senior position in government or in Private Industry. It requires a wide range of skills and talent. This is the Comptroller’s office. There is a large administrative responsibility to manage the office. There’s a lot of accounting and package management that goes with it Finance is very important to control the expenditures to ensure that the county has cash flow, works wisely and cost-effectively but also delivers for the community; make sure that the government and all these agencies are running efficiently; money is spent wisely and they deliver services.
TIP: Somehow or the other, it’s a very huge responsibility. Nassau County I believe is one of the biggest counties?
M: Yes. It’s one of the biggest counties but if we were a state we would be about the 33rd biggest We were ranked 33 of all the states. We are bigger than Rhode Island; we are bigger than the state of Delaware, some examples
TIP: That’s interesting.
M: you can go down the line; and our budget is more than 3 billion dollars.
TIP: Sorry for interrupting you. But in terms of budget, do you think you’re bigger than any other state?
M: Yes. That’s how we measure. In terms of budget and population, as I said we were ranked 33. So we would be bigger than about 17 other states.
TIP: that gives you a much bigger stature than the comptroller of a state?
M: Absolutely. We don’t compete with California, Texas or Florida though.
TIP: One of the greatest responsibilities that probably you shoulder, and you were mentioning so many things. But you said money is to be spent wisely. What do you mean by that?
M: Well to have the maximum benefit to our residents, in terms of Public Safety services that we provide; maintaining our roads; our infrastructure; makingsure street lights work; we have a fair business environment; provide incentives to business to stay here’ to relocate here. Those are big responsibilities that require significant expenditures of our funds. To provide clean water, some of the basic security, clean water sewage-that we all take for granted. Those are very costly services.
TIP: If I’m not mistaken, and please correct me if I’m, you don’t have any legislative powers as comptroller?
M: That’s correct
TIP: And it is the policies framed by the legislature that you implement?
M: That’s correct
TIP: So how do you say that it is the job of the Comptroller to ensure that water is properly given, proper taxes are there? What do you mean by that?
M: Well the comptroller’s office does not make policies. We don’t say how to spend the money; what are the public priorities. That is up to the county executive and the legislature. But once they decide that they are going to spend (we have 300 billion dollars in expenditure) and they say that we’re going to spend hundred billion dollars on police services, then it’s my responsibility to manage the budget to ensure that the police department stays within its budget and they do a relatively good job in terms of keeping the crime low. That is our responsibility to manage and report. We don’t manage the police department but we have the authority and responsibility to oversee how they spend the money; how they spend it as intended by the legislature and that they operate efficiently and we have low crime. If we are not meeting those objectives, it is our responsibility to go in an audit, find out why and report back to the legislature and the county executive.
TIP: Do you think you can describe yourself a man with a whip?
M: Yes; sometimes a whip and a whip stick.
TIP: That’s where audit comes
M: That’s where audit comes.
TIP: I think that is one of the primary jobs of the Comptroller?
M: It is one of the primary jobs, yes. But the comptroller’s office has functions beyond. Besides audit function we have, as part of our audit function, subpoena power similar to the District Attorney’s. We have an accounting department to monitor and manage the budget for all departments. Then we pay all the bills. All the claims that come through this office will be audited and approved and paid by the Comptroller’s office. We approve the contracts. So, although the County Executive Office submits the contract, the legislature votes on approving those contracts, we are part of the approval process as well. And in some cases even if the county executive estimated the contract, the legislature has approved it we can reject it because we find it’s not good value for the payment and the milestones and performance requirements are clearly defined.
TIP: But that objection can be overruled by the legislature?
M: No. They cannot. Actually we have a situation now where we are saying that you want to spend 1.5 million to buy a little app. We think that you can have that app developed in-house or have an outside software firm develop it for 25000 dollars or something like that. So we are refusing that purchase order. We are separate, like almost a third branch of the government.
TIP: You have that kind of Independence?
M: Yes. That’s why I am elected. The Comptroller is independently elected from the county executive and the legislature.
TIP: But you’re answerable to the legislature?
M: No. I’m not. I’m answerable to the public, to you, the voters. That is a huge difference.
TIP: Are you not bound by what the legislature decides to do with the spending?
M: you know I am bound to execute what they vote in terms of approving funding for me. The Comptroller’s office cannot spend money without the legislative approval. But once they decide they want to spend a billion dollars on public safety I need to accept that and make sure that that money is well-spent in terms of contracts that are issued in terms of police overtime. That all the factors that go into maintaining Public Safety, the systems are in place. We manage the payroll; we manage personal benefits. That’s all done in the Comptroller’s office.
TIP: So what I understand is that you oversee that the funds are ethically used
M: Yes, and we get value.
TIP: And that is why sometimes there are issues, like in your latest audit report on the police you took objection to so much money being spent on overtime and you said that there was some kind of a mismanagement kind of thing?
M: Yes. We pointed that out that they have been consistently, year after year, been exceeding the budget for overtime. And furthermore, we found that there were no processes in place for the management to be aware that a precinct was, let’ssay, using excessive overtime and there was no feedback mechanism for the management to know. And furthermore there were no clear directives as to how overtime should be managed at the precinct level resulting in year over year of overspending on overtime.
TIP: Well, Mr. Maragos, it’s a question I’m addressing to you to know. Overtime came to be paid because there were not enough hands to perform the duties. So, do you think, as a comptroller, it is better to give employment to more people to avoid overtime which means more than the normal hourly wages. I believe when it is overtime, one gets paid more than the normal hourly wage.
TIP: At the same time, why is it necessary to give them overtime, because probably there are not enough hands?
M: You see, that is the responsibility of the commissioner. To manage the police force.
TIP: You find him deficient?
M: Right so it’s up to him to say look I anticipate I have fifteen hundred officers. Ok, maybe that’s too few or too many. Ok. But that’s what I’m going to have. During this year I’m going to need X dollars in salaries. And I’m going to need Ydollars in overtime. It’s his decision. He is the manager. But once he decides that this is the people that I’m going to have and this is the amount I’m going to spend on over time we expect him to live within the budget. We’re not going to tell him how many officers he should have. He needs to tell the legislature. That he needs X number of officers. To maintain a certain level of public safety and maintain crime law. That’s his job. But once he makes those statements, as a manager he signs up to them. And we expect them, as a comptroller, as an oversight, as a watchdog to live within the commitments that he makes. That’s true in any business, and even the most basic of management responsibilities. To manage within certain guidelines and achieve those results with those guidelines. And normally in business you know that you normally do. Budget conservatively. Promise conservatively. Make conservative goals and try to exceed them. So we want them to do better. But as a minimum, we expect him to do what he promised to do. In terms of managing the budget, interms of the number of resources and stuff that he’s going to need to achieve a certain level of public safety.